Oilsjt Carnaval. It’s hard to describe it to the uninitiated. As one of the largest street festivals in Belgium (I believe rivaled only by the 10 days of the Gentse Feesten), the three days of Carnaval seem to be just another excuse for binge-drinking, partying, and dressing up in outrageous costumes (which, I will argue, is non-negotiable).
But for many Oilsjteneers, preparations for Carnaval are year-round. The first two days of the festivities are marked by a parade of floats — ranging from the intricate to the obscene — that are built by different Carnaval groups. The biggest, and most detailed are official entrants and compete for different prize categories. But the parade is also peppered with smaller, satirical groups who veer from the parade route before the official floats enter the market square for judging.
I got to know this festival rather well over the last three years. Joery grew up outside of Aalst (Oilsjt is Aalst in the city’s dialect), and he takes his Carnaval preparations seriously. Carnival music starts playing in the apartment at the end of January, and we can’t drive near Aalst without Radio Ajoin on. In fact, the first year I accompanied Joery to the festivities he told me, “I don’t care if you get tired and want to go home early. This is Carnaval. I will not leave.”
And this seems to be the mentality of many Carnaval-goers. Carnaval represents a special time of the year when one can dress up in politically incorrect, satirical, ridiculous costumes and take over a city. Businesses and streets close and as you get closer to the city center the number of “normal” people you see becomes fewer and fewer. Rather, the roads are filled with men (and women) in fur coats, wigs, lampshade-hats, and fake eyelashes, clutching their pocketbooks and pushing their festival wagons (aka baby-buggies and shopping carts that have been converted to beer storage units).
It’s a chance for people to disappear into their costumes and let a totally different aspect of their personality shine. The satirical nature of the costumes and parade floats is notorious throughout Belgium. This year, a common theme of many of the smaller, informal groups (though some of the larger floats as well) circled around the unfortunate video that appeared over the summer of the city’s mayor having sex with her then-boyfriend on top of a tower while vacationing in Spain (the video itself is pretty PG — no nudity or anything — but it is very clear what’s going on). Other themes poked fun at local, national and international politics and pop culture references, such as the death of Amy Winehouse and the extended period (to say the least) it took for Belgium to form a national government.
And yes, it’s an opportunity to party.
After the parade on Sunday (which typically begins at 1:00pm and ends around 11:00pm — there are many groups and the parade route not only is long, but is hampered by obstacles like bridges and narrow turns, which are difficult for some of the larger floats to navigate around), the “pompiers” (literally “firetrucks”, but is actually a reference to old firetrucks that have been outfitted with speakers and lights) stream back into the market square, form a circle, and hook up their speakers to a single system, essentially turning the square into a giant dance party. This (and another square where the same thing occurs) is where Joery and I generally stay until we head home around 6am.
There are other aspects of Carnaval that I haven’t had the chance to see (yet) and the entire celebration itself has been recognized by UNESCO since 2010 for it’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. For instance, on Monday afternoon the Prince Carnaval (who campaigns and is elected by the Carnaval groups) throws onions or candy from the top of the bell tower in the market square and there’s also the “Dance of the Broomsticks”, which I don’t know much about. But these things tend to happen in the afternoon on Monday, which is usually when Joery and I are recovering from the night before.
Carnaval itself is a great experience, particularly if you really delve into it. In my opinion, the amount of fun you have is directly related to how much effort you put into your costume (after all, most of the members of the official groups spend much of the year designing and making their outfits). The perception of what is “normal” is completely turned upside down, with many people surprised to see someone cutting through the crowd in jeans and a jacket while men in high-heels and fishnets is relatively common. (Sidenote: while not all men go to Carnaval as a Voil Jeanet — literally ‘dirty Jenny’ — it’s the traditional costume for men. It stems from a period in the city’s history when many of the inhabitants were poor and couldn’t afford the luxurious, detailed Carnaval costumes of the bourgeoisie. Rather, they would raid their wive’s closets for their outfits)
For me, this is the appeal of Carnaval. It’s a way of looking at life in a different manner; a chance to poke fun at society, politics, and whatever else in a way that could be frowned upon in different circumstances. And it’s a chance to put on fake eyelashes, cake on the makeup, don a velle frak (fur or faux-fur coat) and dance the night away.
I first met Joery in 2006 while he was in the U.S. doing research for his doctorate. On the last night of Carnaval that year, he wrote me a wistful e-mail, describing the “Burning of the Doll” that marks the end of the festival on Tuesday night. He wrote:
“The sculpture was completely incinerated by 3.45pm Eastern Time, that’s 9.35 pm in Aalst … At that point I lay down the phone, and I knew which song they were going to sing next, so I quietly sang along with the anthem of my city: Oilsjt goi stad van men droeimen, or \”Aalst, city of my dreams”\.
Most people will continue partying until six in the morning, some die-hards will only stop when they get their Ash Wednesday cross in church, still in their Carnaval costume. The priest won’t mind, he understands they mean no harm; he knows how important Carnaval is.“